“In my first four months in office, more than two million jobs have been created. That’s more than double the rate of my predecessor, and more than eight times the rate of President Reagan.”
This is a new wrinkle on an earlier theme. In May, Biden tweeted a favorable comparison between him and Trump (listed simply as “previous administration”) for the first three months.
The numbers aren’t wrong. But there’s something important missing here.
First, we should note that to the Biden administration’s credit, it starts the job count in February. A president takes the oath of office on Jan. 20. But for the Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey, employers report data to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the pay period that includes the 12th of the month — before the new president takes office. So February, not January, actually covers the first pay period after a new president takes charge.
The bureau says there is no right answer for when to start counting. Here at the Fact Checker, we long have preferred February as the starting point for presidential job figures.
The Trump administration liked to start counting in January, thereby padding Trump’s total with an extra 197,000 jobs — and knocking down the number for Barack Obama because 784,000 jobs disappeared in January 2009 during the Great Recession. Trump’s maneuver put that monthly job loss in Obama’s presidency, not George W. Bush’s presidency.
That brings us to what’s missing in Biden’s tweet — a comparison to his former boss, Obama. The job loss in Obama’s first four months was nearly 2.6 million jobs. If Biden is taking credit for job gains, does that mean Obama gets the blame for those job losses?
Obama certainly did not think so, having inherited an economy in a free fall. When he was running for reelection in 2012, job growth was basically flat during his first term. So he routinely started the count from March 2010, when payrolls started growing again, to claim a gain of 4.3 million private-sector jobs. (That was also a bit of spin since he didn’t count state and local jobs, which lagged in the recovery and if included would have reduced the gain after March 2010 to 3.8 million jobs.)
In other words, a president’s job record at the start of his presidency is mostly a matter of circumstances.
Biden has pushed through a $1.9 trillion stimulus package and successfully implemented a nationwide vaccination plan that has reduced the impact of the pandemic. But the Trump administration’s embrace of a smaller stimulus package in December also bolstered the economy — and hence job growth — this year, according to Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics.
“Once it became clear in December that the races were a toss-up, and that the incumbent Senate Republicans might lose, the Trump administration and Congress kicked into gear and passed a $900 billion relief package, including stimulus checks, that quickly lifted the economy at the start of this year,” Zandi wrote in a June 6 report. “Of course, the GA Senate seats flipped to the Democrats, giving the Ds control of government, and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in March. The $2.8 trillion in total fiscal support provided to the economy this year and next, and the resulting boom-like economy, was not something we anticipated late last year.” At the time, Moody’s estimated it would take many years for the economy to return to full employment; now it expects that to happen by late 2022.
This shows how it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to try to separate job growth by presidential term. Many factors beyond a president’s control affect job growth, even if Biden can point to some substantial achievements so far in his tenure.
It’s also rather early to make these sorts of comparisons. We used Bureau of Labor Statistics data to look back at the four-month job record of the presidents elected in the past half-century. Here are the results, ranked by percentage gain off the baseline in January. (Raw job numbers are not that helpful because the labor market was so much smaller.)
- Jimmy Carter: +1.7%
- Joe Biden: +1.5%
- Richard M. Nixon: +1.3%
- Bill Clinton: +0.7%
- G.H.W. Bush: +0.7%
- Donald Trump: +0.5%
- Ronald Reagan: +0.3%
- G.W. Bush: -0.2%
- Barack Obama: -1.9%
As you can see, the first four months is not a great indicator for the entire presidency. Reagan and Clinton ended up with the best jobs records in this group, even though Reagan’s record after four months was mediocre, while Carter, George H.W. Bush and Trump lost their bids for reelection because the economy was doing poorly in their fourth year.
The White House did not offer a response.
The Pinocchio Test
As a general rule of thumb, the Fact Checker automatically assigns Two Pinocchios for claims that a president is responsible for job growth. That kind of statement simply lacks context. In this case, Biden is comparing himself favorably to Trump and Reagan, two Republican presidents. He skips over the fact that the worst job record in this four-month period belonged to Obama, when Biden served as vice president.
In any case, the jobs record in the first months of any administration is mostly a matter of circumstances, good or bad, that awaited the president when he took the oath of office.
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